All of us in the Gutter: D. FOY in conversation with Matt Bell
Made to Break
by D. Foy
(Two Dollar Radio, 2014)
D. Foy is the author of the novel Made to Break (Two Dollar Radio, 2014). His work has been published in Bomb, Frequencies, Post Road, The Literary Review, and The Georgia Review, among others, and has been included in Forty New Stories: New Writing from Harper Perennial. Made to Break is narrated by AJ, one of five friends who headed to a cabin near Lake Tahoe for New Year’s Eve 1996. In short order, they’re stranded in the cabin by a car accident and a storm that leaves one friend severely injured and the rest of them stranded and cut off. Their only contact with the outside world is a mysterious stranger named Super, who arrives on the scene as a catalyst for AJ’s possible escape and transformation. With a prose style synthesized from equal parts junkie lit and punk rock, D. Foy sets a breakneck pace throughout his first book, propelling his trapped and hapless characters from one breaking point to the next.
Matt Bell (Brooklyn Rail): One of the most striking things about Made to Break is the narrator Andrew’s voice, which is both vulgar and romantic, blackly funny and visceral, but also given to flights of on-the-fly self-mythologizing, where the narrator says things like, “Orgy of the whir, orgy of the hum, in these we’ll search for things we’ve been told we could hope to be” and “Any time now we’d collapse around the secrets of ourselves, the ones we knew and the ones we didn’t.” Did the story generate from the voice, or was it a matter of finding the right way to tell this particular story? How did the voice develop over the course of writing and revising the novel?
D. Foy: I often tell people when they ask about my work that I’m into voices. And by this I mean that nearly always when I begin a work it’s in the voice of a particular character, even if that character is a third-person narrator. What happens is that—and I’m not exaggerating in the least—a voice inhabits my head and demands to speak, and I obey. Sometimes, actually, many voices will demand to speak, and I’ll obey all of them, one at a time. So, for instance, my story, “Barnacles of the Fuzz,” is told in the voices of the four characters the story’s about, in addition to a number of other voices, such as that of a guy who’s written a letter to the editor of an art magazine and another, as it were, from a sort of anti-third-person narrator, an omniscient narrator, that is, within an omniscient narrator. My wife recently asked me a similar question, about how I do what I do, and, while my answer could’ve come off as glib, I didn’t mean it to. It was the first thing I thought of. “It comes out of my fingers,” I said. Obviously that’s not true, but very often it feels that way. I’m not nearly as comfortable speaking with my mouth as I am with my written words. My thought process, in fact, is radically different when writing than when speaking. Somehow when writing I can access a part of me I can’t when I speak. I used to question why this is so, but no longer. I can do it, so I do it. I trust in the process. But most surprising for me is the strangely pleasurable discomfort I feel when looking back at something I’ve written, I fail to know who wrote it. A chunk of work will be there before me, and I know “I” wrote it, but at the same time, I couldn’t possibly say how I did. Of course it’s only strangely pleasurable when the work seems good to me. When it seems mediocre or even bad, the discomfort can be intolerable, as in, “All right, does anyone out there offer a one-day rental for a guillotine?”
To answer your other question, though, I could say the story generates from the voice, but I think it would be more accurate to say the story generates from the consciousness the voice speaks for and from, and that is very different. It’s not my mind mimicking a voice. For the time that voice is speaking, my mind is the mind of the person whose thoughts it speaks. I can’t say how that happens, it just does. The implication here, right, is that it’s not my story at all. It’s someone else’s story. AJ’s voice, then (though the narrator’s legal name is Andrew, no one but his friend Dinky calls him that, and then only at times, usually ironically), doesn’t develop over the course of his telling any more than mine is developing as I answer this question. My job as a writer—and it was a job—was to edit AJ. His initial telling, plainly, was bloated: he’d told far more a story than needed telling. Once he’d done, I had the unpleasant task of cutting down everything he’d blabbed out by roughly half. Which leads me to this: I’ve come to see, in the most excruciating way, that writing—the actual initial telling of a given narrative—constitutes but a teensy portion of the work it takes to complete that narrative, whether it’s a story, essay, poem, or book, sufficiently for the eyes of others. The rest is labor and as such laborious. I heard this long ago, and didn’t believe it then, but I know now that nothing could be truer: all writing is 2 percent inspiration and 98 percent perspiration. That business of the writer sitting down and giving birth to a work of genius, the way Athena is supposed to have sprung whole from the head of Zeus, is mostly a bunch of garbage. Yes, Georges Simenon wrote his books in two weeks, for instance, but writers like him are one in zillions, and besides, he was psychotic.
Rail: I like that idea that your job “was to edit AJ,” in part because as I began your answer I immediately wondered what revision is like for a writer who works this way. Can you tell us about the various drafts of Made to Break? What did it take to get to here? What were the technical challenges along the way, especially in revision?
Foy: Good question, mostly because I wrote Made to Break in 1998. I wrote the draft and then stuck it in a drawer and got it out every few years or so to tidy it up. The tidying at that point was much less in the line than in the structure and parts. I moved things around here and there—the prologue, for instance was originally the antepenultimate chapter—and chopped stuff out wholesale. Grace Krilanovich published The Orange Eats Creeps with Two Dollar Radio in 2010. When finally I got my hands on it in 2011, I said, “Hey, if those guys like this sort of thing, they may well like Made to Break.” And, as it turns out, my hunch was right. When I sent them the book, I believe it was 242 pages, considerably less that its original 375 or so. After he acquired it, Eric, my editor, sent me back some great notes, all of which were aimed at ensuring that the pace drove forward alongside the narrative itself, that the pace of the story itself, in other words, didn’t get in its own way. He recommended cutting a small chapter and conflating two others, I think. I did that. But once I had, and I’d got that mindset going, I went into the work with a sharper blade and cut out sentences and graphs here and there, beginning to end. Along the way I worked sentences, too, but it wasn’t until I knew everything else was right that I got really pointed and worked just about every sentence one at a time, and then a graph at a time. DeLillo talks about taking each graph and putting it on a separate page so that he can see it working as a mutually exclusive entity with greater clarity. Already I’d been doing something like that, by putting the text into different fonts and different sizes of fonts, as well as formatting pages differently—single spaced, space-and-a-half, double and triple too—all toward the continuous refreshment of my vision. When I felt the work was closer to where I wanted it, I also put individual graphs on blank pages, and worked them that way. And all these techniques work incredibly well. Every time I transpose the text, I see it with fresh eyes, and with fresh eyes see flaws in the prose I hadn’t seen before. This went on right into the galley stage. The words on the page of the book, in the form of the actual book in my hand, looked different than I’d seen them in manuscript, and doubtless I saw yet more flaws, enough that I was mortified to sleeplessness that the book was out in the world being read by serious people. I had a few heart attacks over that. I’d say I made at least a hundred, if not more, tiny but important emendations to the penultimate proof, and thank God. Time and space—I need to be away from the words, and I need to see them on each new encounter in forms I hadn’t even seen them. My other books have undergone a similar process, mostly, I suppose, because once I’ve written them no one has wanted to publish them. They’re in drawers the same way Made to Break was. This, I see now, has been one of the hidden jewels of endless rejection, and I’m glad for it.
Rail: It would be reductive to call Made to Break a “drug novel,” but that’s certainly one of the genres at work. In fact, after meeting Super—the pot-smoking, Hamlet-quoting guide character who both helps set the story in motion and frequently returns at key moments—I was immediately reminded of Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing, a feeling that was reinforced when a chapter or two later another character read the “inventory” from the beginning of that book aloud to the rest of the group. How much of an influence on this book was Thompson’s work? What are some of the other ingredients in the mix? A lot of music too, I’d imagine: Wilco and Frank Black and Nick Cave all play throughout the book, among others. It seems like these are characters participating in a certain kind of pop culture drug and alcohol mythology, perhaps starting to question their place in it.
Foy: I was recently asked a similar question about the influence of Thompson in this book, so please forgive me if I go into echo mode. My mid-teen years were a time when I consumed just enormously unreasonable amounts of illicit substances—you name it, I did it in spades and then some—not only because I was raised in a house where drugs and alcohol were quotidian, but also because, among countless other reasons, writers and musicians like Thompson and Carlos Castaneda and Jack Kerouac and Jim Carroll and Lou Reed and Iggy Pop and Led Zeppelin and the like were my idols, wild men whose lives I’d aspired since childhood to imitate. And I rolled with a crew back then for which all these beasts were idols, too. Time dragged on, but for many, myself included, nothing changed but the world around us. I escaped at last, somehow, in body and mind, and yet still old ghosts pestered me. There are many still, really. Thompson’s in the book because, at the time I wrote it, he was probably one of the more nagging among them.
As for other influences—yep. Shakespeare is all over the place. It’s not by accident that the character Super regularly echoes lines from Hamlet. It’s never made explicit, but this is because Super, in some deep recess, thinks himself Hamlet reincarnated. This is also why he names AJ and Basil Horatio and Laertes, respectively, and why, in turn, in a way, AJ even tells his story. Like Horatio, whom Hamlet with his dying breath commands share his tragedy with others, AJ, sole survivor of his own ugly story, is commanded by Super to tell the tale of it, too. We’ve all seen this mode many times since Shakespeare. Frankenstein, Moby Dick, Lord Jim, and The Great Gatsby, to name a few, all follow this pattern, whereby each story’s narrator tells the story of someone else, who just so happens to have died. AJ went to hell with others but returned alone. Made to Break is the story of that trip. But Super is also a medium for other fascinations of mine, that is, for all things magic, psychic, supernatural, and occult and whatnot, not to mention stuff like vaudeville and the circus. He’s a composite character into which I could blend all sorts of mythical power figures—trickster, jester, shape changer, fool, soothsayer, fortuneteller, philosopher, sage, clown. He was much more radical in earlier drafts. It was pointed out to me that as he stood, no one would be able to handle him. And I think that was true. He was, quite literally, out of this world. But past what’s in Super, AJ himself is a composite of figures like Updike’s Rabbit, Cervantes’ Quixote, Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Johnson’s Fuckhead, Miller’s Henry Miller, and Salinger’s Caulfield, in addition to all sorts of others, noir guys like the narrators throughout Hammett, Chandler, and Thompson, as well as narrators like those in any number of weird and apocalyptic narratives. Or Gass, for instance, or Rilke, or the Zen master Dogen. Made to Break is the first book, actually, in which I realized a mature expression of what I call “gutter opera.” Hence the music too. A little bit ago I finished my piece for David Gutowski’s “Book Notes” column over at his blog Largehearted Boy. I knew that I’d conceived of Made to Break as a score in prose (its working title was Mud Song), but it wasn’t until I’d begun to write about the music in the book that I realized just how truly steeped in music it is, implicitly and explicitly. Nearly 60 songs and references to dances and musicians and bands run through the narrative, from, like you said, Wilco, The Pixies, and Nick Cave, to Don Ho, Soundgarden, and Johnny Cash. There’s other stuff, too, influence-wise, but you get the gist!
Rail: I’m glad to hear you talk some about Super, because he’s definitely a scene stealer, in part because he does seem a little out of this world. It’s interesting to think of him as a composite archetype, as you suggest above, and to imagine the more radical version of him that existed in previous drafts. I’m not sure I’ve ever had a character change so radically on me between drafts, and I’m curious what that was like: How did the taming of Super go, and what did it require out of you as a writer?
Foy: Essentially Super spoke in a language that was gutter opera to the nth degree, a radical gallimaufrical pidgin English that no one but AJ could understand, and then only barely. I wanted Super to represent the ultimate outsider, for all sorts of reasons, but mostly as a way to cast light on just how fucked up some of us on the inside are. Again, Eric was critical to his taming. Those in fact were Eric’s major notes—cutting and tightening a few sections and bringing Super a little closer to the world the rest of the characters inhabit. Of all the difficulties I encountered during the revision, this was the most difficult. I tried to imagine Super as less than he was and for a long time couldn’t. Then I realized that he himself didn’t have to be other than he was—he only needed to express himself differently. In other words, what he says is on the whole what he’s always said, now he just uses different words, so that, even if we have to think for a minute, most of us can understand. None of this is to say it was easy. It took some doing to get to that stage. Super needed to speak differently but the same, and I couldn’t see how to do it. But then I saw the way, and it all fell into place, and there he is.
Rail: I want to talk a little about your prose style: “Purple prose” is a phrase that’s been used in a derogatory sense for a long time—longer than I’d imagined, as Wikipedia tells me it’s derived from Horace’s “Your opening shows great promise, and yet flashy purple patches…”—but in the jacket copy for Made to Break, it’s used as a selling point. I laughed reading that before starting the novel, but after finishing I think it’s a great description of some of the narration: Sometimes the prose is pretty flashy and over the top, but that also feels like part of Andrew’s charm as the narrator, an elevated take on reality that contrasts the sort of grit and bleakness and more straightforward narration that we see in other places. I’m going to assume you didn’t write the jacket copy, but how do you feel about that descriptor? How challenging was it to juggle these different levels of narration, to know which to use when?
Foy: Honestly, I was pretty ecstatic when I saw that. The jacket copy isn’t touting my prose as purple just to sell the book. It’s making a statement, too, about the status (in the world of letters) of so-called “purple prose” that essentially turns the various notions implicit to it—that it’s too much of whatever—salty, sweet, sour, bitter—that its density is prohibitive, that it’s an expression of blind self indulgence, that it’s suffocating, that it’s cloying, and the like—it turns all of that on its head. And it does so with the single word that accompanies the phrase, “luminous.” Most people who identify with the established connotations of “purple prose” wouldn’t likely agree that it could also bestow, rather than merely consume, light. Prose that only consumes doesn’t deserve the attribute “purple,” in my opinion. Prose that only consumes is prose that, for whatever reason, is bad. Purple prose, on the other hand, is prose for the ages. It’s no wonder I can say it was virtually on purple prose alone that I cut my writerly teeth. All of the writers I love most are essentially purple, and in the best of ways. If Shakespeare, for instance, isn’t purple, I don’t know who is. If Cervantes isn’t purple, I don’t know who is, either. The same holds for Rabelais and Aretino, and then for Baudelaire, too, and then for Poe, Melville, Whitman, Conrad, Musil, Joyce, Proust, Miller, Faulkner, Beckett (yes, even in his ostensible minimalism he is purple), Gaddis, Pynchon, Gass, Bernhard, Sebald, Krasznahorkai, and so on and so forth. All these writers are both flabbergastingly heavy and gorgeously luminescent. I recently finished a book-length essay called In Favor of Nearness, which explores the state of writing, and of art in general, today. As the title infers, nearnesss is a quality I advocate, as opposed to distance. Nothing, obviously, is ever universal, but as a rule of thumb I’d say that artists I could call purple are also artists in favor of nearness, whose works expresses the essence of nearness, which I’d call green, after a penetrating observation by Blake Butler, who said, “You can’t write a story better than the color green, but you can wield green.” Butler, of course, could as easily have used purple to make his point, or any other color. To wield green, to wield purple—this is what artists in favor of nearness do, this, in fact, is all they do.
Green is like obscenity, the way that old judge said: we can’t define it, but we know it when we see it. And green obtains that we may wield it only in the leaving of the known, only that is, once we’ve taken two steps into what’s unknown. Green isn’t possessed, but, like grace, bestowed. This might suggest that only certain of us are bestowed with green, but I’d say the opposite is true. Just as I believe we’re all given grace, we’re all born with grace, so do I believe we are every one of us, from the start, all born with green. This isn’t my idea, mind. It’s not even an idea, but a verity, handed down through the thousands of nameless sages since days unknown. But what we don’t use, as the saying goes, we lose (or sometimes think we lose). Hardly any of us these days wield our green from the outset. Most of us, actually, are taught both to abandon our green and then to disdain and hate and fear it. And then, before we know it, it’s become something foreign to us, like a samurai’s sword in the guise of a mutant, maybe, something it seems we’ve never had and can never make sense of or be connected to. Green isn’t out there. It’s inside, and to be in touch with green, to wield green, that is, we must be as near to it as possible, at all times, we must at all times go inside. That, honestly, is the darker, more terrifying place, which is also why those of us who could otherwise wield green can’t or won’t. The greatest art, for me, whether in literature or film or music or dance or painting or what have you, is the result of what I call profound nearness, of a profoundly inside job. This, too, is in all likelihood why the greatest art is both so heavy and so light. And this is how someone can say in the same breath, “luminous and purple.” Truly purple prose, what comes from wielding green, isn’t either/or but both. Either/or is a delusion. Either/or is a delusion because either/or is a function of fear, which repels. And when we’re repelled, we retreat. And the farther we retreat, the more distance between us and the object of our repulsion, and the greater the distance, the less our understanding. It’s important for perspective, of course, that we step in and out and remain in constant motion, but that’s never an excuse for allowing the thing beneath our gaze to slip so far off that all we can see is its naked form. Form alone is meaningless. It’s also a lie. There’s no such thing as form alone. I’m interested in form, very much so, but I’m far more interested in essence. I want to go into the dark, terrified as I nearly always am, because it’s only in the dark that I’m without knowledge. That’s the beginner’s mind, the place that’s empty, the place that’s able to take and hold what in the dark will always come. Shunryu Suzuki says, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” Wendell Aaron Berry meant more or less the same, I think, when he said, “It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.” On the flip side, I think of what I believe is your pal Kyle Minor’s view of “purple prose”—I’m pretty sure he said this though don’t hold me to it—that the expression is simply a “lazy epithet.” This is true. It’s very convenient to disparage and discount the artists we can’t understand with an unflattering label. That artist makes me uncomfortable! Yeah, me too! Their stuff is purple! Hrah! It’s easy, and it’s cheap, and, obviously, I don’t like it. None of this, though, is to say that just because I was ecstatic to see my work called “luminous and purple” I think it holds up beneath the unforgiving criteria I’ve just described, nor is it to suggest that I think my stuff anywhere near all the great artists who do meet that criteria in so many stunning ways. I only mean that they’re standards I hold myself to, standards I strive to meet. I’d rather fail magnificently, over and over and over, than triumph ordinarily, any time, any day. I’m not in this for the thing of it, but for the making of the thing of it. Nothing else is worth it.
As for the different levels of narration you mention, they are, in a way, yet another facet of these concerns. Gutter opera is a good generic way to describe what I do, and if I’m doing it well, I’m continuously juggling multiple considerations on multiple levels. It’s not something I need consciously to strive for any longer. I’ve trained so long at it that it more or less comes naturally now. I’ve trained, that is, at the practice of being myself, and that—who I am—who I think we all are—is a complex of radically divergent memories, desires, impulses, and drives, each struggling, as it were, endlessly to usurp the other’s precedence. Rather than resist my nature or force it to be other—since what we resist will persist, and what we force will fail—I work instead in my creative process toward allowing all things all at once. It’s only then I feel I’m being true. And it’s only when I’m true, that my art will be true, as well, or at least as close to a given truth as I’m able to get at a given time. There’s not much more to ask for, I don’t think. If I can even do a little of this, a little bit at a time, and keep on doing it to the end, I’ll live satisfied.
Rail: I love the idea of wanting to go where you are “without knowledge,” and I prize something really similar in my own writing. One of the challenges with this approach seems to be to somehow refuse yourself knowing too much as the project progresses: Obviously, the first day of writing begins in almost total mystery, but the brain is often a sense-making machine, and all too soon starts to impose order on the chaos. But I think you and I both agree that it’s the chaos that generates the best stuff, at least in first drafts. What do you do to keep renewing the mystery?
Foy: It’s precisely because the brain is endlessly at work struggling to make sense of what goes into it that makes writing the adventure it is, and that’s why no matter what the outcome at day’s end, it’s the only thing that really matters to me, and, why as well, whatever anyone else may think, it’s the only thing I’m halfway decent at. When I step into the dark, as I was saying, it’s inevitable that sooner or later I’ll encounter something I haven’t encountered before, and that, just as inevitably, my brain will set to work trying to make sense of it. Both Joan Didion and Henry Miller have versions of the same philosophy, and it applies to me in every way: I write to find out what I think. On the whole, I consider myself a moron when speaking. Honestly. It’s hardly ever the case that I’m satisfied with the words that come out of my mouth. I say things and then fret that I could’ve said them better or, almost as often, that I shouldn’t’ve said them at all! Not only does my mind work very differently when I speak, but also—and this is the real dilemma—once I speak, I can’t take back or change what I’ve said. Of course I’m exaggerating some, but that’s to make that point that the difference between my faith in speaking and my faith in writing is substantial. Somehow I’ve learned—and by this I mean that I’ve taught myself through years of discipline—to trust my intuition when writing, and to trust that, no matter what, no matter how dark or scary the place I’ve allowed myself to stumble into, I’ll always find my way to feeling comfortable with it, either by making sense of it or by accepting that no amount of effort will unravel the mystery it is. The second option is usually the best. Answers are good, but questions are grandeur itself. The question is the dark, the question is our casting about in the dark, flailing and thrashing until, exhausted, we glimmeringly see that it’s really only ever the flailing and thrashing that matters, and never the product of it, our exhaustion, and, in it, our puny understanding.
So the way I keep the mystery is simply, seriously, this: digression. It’s the single best technique I know to maintain a state of “not-knowing.” At any moment in the compositional process, there are an infinite number of possibilities, but only one actuality. The more I attach myself to a given actuality at any point, the less chance I have to explore the arising possibilities. The quality of my work, and the satisfaction I take engaging it, is proportional to my attachment to any aspect of it. Attachment is inherently conservative, and, because it’s never anything but the spawn of fear, it’s always, always anathema. When I first started writing, I was attached to every word I wrote, and that’s mostly why everything I wrote was garbage. I wrote some decent things, but my attachment to all the shit around it poisoned it. I wanted to control everything way too much. So both in the compositional process and the editorial process, my foremost aim is to remain very, very close, but nevertheless, for lack of a better expression, detached. Composing, I want the freedom to go anywhere—to allow myself the freedom of going wherever a thought may take me, to digress—trusting that wherever I go is always the right way to go, because wherever I go will always take me to where I need to be. But it’s critical as well that at all times I never forget that nothing I’ve gathered along the way is precious. This of course is what Faulkner meant when he laid down his famous dictum that the artist must always kill his darlings. Nothing is precious. The moment it is, I’m lost. Editing, revising, I have to remain as detached from what I’ve gathered during my travels as I was detached from the paths of my travels. Composing is gathering. Editing and revision is divesting. Usually the proof of the validity of this detachment is the presented work itself. Hemingway, as Gertrude Stein said, may have smelled of the museum, but he was right on cue when he said every writer’s got to have a built in bullshit detector. Without the ability to hold that dual state—simultaneous radical nearness and radical detachment—for me, anyway, the bullshit detector is impossible. In fact, now that I think of it, it seems to me that this dual state is itself the bullshit detector. Or something like that. In any case, back to the proof: the first draft of my most recent book was 1,000 pages. It’s now 375. The first draft of Made to Break was 375 pages. The final is just over 200. And etc.
Rail: Let’s circle back to the term “gutter opera,” which is a new one for me, and its relationship to doing, as you say, “all things all at once.” It sounds like it’s something you’ve been working toward in the past, in stories, presumably. What defines this self-made genre for you, and where do you think it’ll take you next?
Foy: Like most writers, because I had no identity when I began, I tried to write like others. That was useful, definitely, because through copying others, I learned the mechanics of writing. How do you create this effect? How do these constructions work together or fail to work together? What will happen when I do this? What do I want to happen when I do that? How many different ways can I approach a given proposition? These sorts of things. But at some point I realized that my efforts to make art the way others make art were working against me. I felt confined, and in that confinement I felt untrue. And the more I kept to one thing or one way, the greater my discontent. Merely this or that felt somehow miserably insufficient to me. I wanted, like I said, both/and. I wanted all things all at once (this expression, by the way, is the title of one of Lee K. Abbott’s books). Up to 1997 or so, I’d written poetry, stories, novels, and essays, each mode comprising a project mutually exclusive to the others. It was especially in the bigger work that I grappled with ways to achieve the aims of these different modes under a single auspice, but for various reasons failed. Finally I began to see that by allowing myself the freedom of detaching from the rubric of either/or, I could incorporate any number of modes in the thing at hand, from poetry, theory, journalese, and script to doggerel, yarns, profanity, and slang, and all the rest between. It wasn’t even conscious, really, but organic, in the sense that rather than hold another’s work before me as a watermark, I allowed myself to be myself, and who I am, while writing, in any case, is a constantly morphing heteroglossia. I came to the world of letters from the street the same way, say, that—again, among others I identify with—Henry Miller came to letters from the street. As I’ve said elsewhere, my mother tongue was trash but the tongues I learned in the process of educating myself later, when I decided that to be a writer I needed to put myself through school, were all to some degree or other nothing if not rarified. It made sense that my preferred mode would need to be agile enough to accommodate both heaven and hell, so to speak. I wanted my work, that is, as I’ve also said, to be “euthanasia with a sledgehammer, confession with a bullhorn, epic in a dumpster, redemption through a needle’s eye.” The only way I’ve been able to achieve this, or a semblance of it, is through gutter opera. And as far as I can see, the technique is limitless. There’s nothing I’ve done since ’97 that isn’t gutter opera. My most recent project, a novel called Patricide, is very different than Made to Break, but every bit gutter opera, using first, second, and third person points of view and any number of voices and techniques. But, really, though I call it gutter opera from a distance, like now, when I’m working none of this in my mind. It’s just how I work.
Rail: You’re in the middle of a 6,000 mile book tour you’ve set up yourself, driving across the country, beginning on the West Coast with Cari Luna. What’s the art of the book tour so far? What makes a good reading for you, and what should people who come to see you expect?
Foy: The art of the book tour—I like that a lot, and hadn’t thought of it that way before. But now that you say it, I see that really it is an art, in the sense that, in the two weeks I’ve been on tour so far, while anything can happen at any time, I’ve found that the state of mind with which I navigate what’s happening is very close to my state of mind when writing. It’s important to remain very, very close, very, very present—because unless I do I can’t give myself to the person or situation I’m in, and if I’m not giving, I’m taking, and if I’m taking, I’m failing—but simultaneously very, very detached. And this is the case whether I’m at a reading or handling a logistic via some bureaucrat. For instance, to launch this tour, I did three events at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (A.W.P.)—my first time, by the way—one of the events with you, too—before actually hitting the road with Cari. I flew out to Seattle, did A.W.P., and then rented a car for the rest of the West Coast leg of the tour, which ends in LA. But the morning Cari and I were supposed to get our car, I called to check the agency’s address only to find it no longer existed. My contract had apparently been bought by another rental agency. The long version of this minor nightmare is ludicrous but somehow both terrifying and boring. The short version is that I got the car in good order, but only after navigating a truly Kafkaesque labyrinth of red tape. Had I not remained very present but very detached, I wouldn’t have got the car. I would have got a different car, yes, but not the one I rented months ago, and at a very different, certainly higher price. Then there are the events themselves, and getting to the events, and everything else, and all of that is definitely a rush. Cari and I did five cities together, each in an “in conversation” format, which was as fantastic as it was fun. And though I won’t be with her for the rest of the tour, I’ve set up most of my remaining events to follow that same format. I and the writer joining me will both read, then we’ll chat about our work and work-related matters, then open it up to a Q&A with the audience, and then sign books. I’ll take a picture with people too, for what that’s worth, as strange a thing as I’ve experienced. The first time was the other day in Portland. A total stranger had bought my book. She came up and asked me to sign it for her, and when I handed it back, she asked if she could take my picture. Then she handed her gizmo to someone else and stood next to me, and we smiled and had our picture taken. Maybe it’s naïve, because I’ve seen people do this with writers all the time, but that anyone would ever want to do that with me, because of my book, had never entered my head. I just stood there and smiled. I’m pretty good at smiling. I like to smile, and I like people. The combination of smiling with people is way up there in my book. More might happen on the tour—you never know what’s coming for you—but pretty much this is what people can expect.
MATT BELL’s debut novel In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods was published in 2013 by Soho Press. He teaches in the M.F.A. program at Northern Michigan University.